If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
You’ve most likely heard this age-old riddle before. The key to understanding it is recognizing the fundamental question at its core- i.e, “is existence itself defined by the presence of a perceiving observer?”
But in order to fully engage this question, the semantics of what defines perception and experience must first be addressed. Should we focus on a literal interpretation (i.e., all that is required is at least one such observer perceiving the event in question), or is it imperative that some record exists for posterity? At what point in the reporting and recycling of the information contained in the original experience does it begin to affirm itself as truth?
In our current age of information and social media, as this process of documentation and curation propagates into ubiquity, an updated version may be more apt: if someone has a party, and nobody posted about it on Facebook, did it even happen?
With this increasing ubiquity of social media, it is evident that technology is now heavily used to augment nearly every aspect of our reality and, consequently, reshape our idea of what an experience is. It is no longer sufficient to simply attend the party. In fact, it is no longer even necessary to attend the party. Stories that are subcaptioned by a subtly exclusive “you had to be there” have become increasingly scarce. Why would you need to be there, when you can relive the experience (or vicariously live it, if you weren’t invited) by simply consuming the overlapping verbal, visual, and auditory documentation of everything noteworthy that happened?
Pictures and videos might provide a reasonably accurate depiction of an event, but the expanding presence of increasingly sophisticated technology deepens our immersion in the artifacts of reality they capture in kind. For instance, the Oculus Rift is used to visually transport oneself from a particular setting and instantly travel to another. Used recreationally, this can beckon toward a world of possibilities in the future of video games. Playing a game in which a virtual world responds to movement and interaction in a way that is almost indistinguishable from the real world can potentially transform an experience in virtual space and bring it to within touching distance of reality, phenomenally speaking. As someone who has personally been lucky enough to use an Oculus Rift, I can testify to exactly how both disorienting and fascinating it is to be provided with conflicting visual and physical stimuli. Simply combining the Rift with something to mimic a physical stimulus, such as a chair that can tilt and move, would allow one to effectively disappear into a game.
Other means of augmenting reality have more practical uses. The possibilities for this sort of technology are essentially limitless; something like Google Glass has the potential to create an entirely new way of experiencing “boring” everyday activities. Instead of doing prior research on, say, a new restaurant you want to visit, it would be possible to see reviews superimposed directly on your field of vision upon looking at the actual building. It is already second nature for many of us to pull out a smartphone and conduct basic research on any topic that requires further clarification. Glass would simply eliminate the step of reaching for a device that exists in the physical world.
SPACE transforms professional tasks by transferring them to a virtual workspace — a more intuitive visual experience, instead of the confines of a computer screen. The aim of this technology is to remove the restrictions imposed upon productivity by certain limitations of computer-based work — notably, the need to effectively budget the real estate on one’s screen. It might not seem like such a hassle to manually click between windows, but the time and energy required by those few seconds of physical manipulation slowly but surely impede the efficiency of multitasking.
Our constant connection to the digital world might incite feelings of unease and inspire visions of dystopian worst-case scenarios. The Oculus Rift might turn us all into zombies who are content with staying in one spot for the rest of our lives. Google Glass might allow anyone to access one’s personal information with simple eye contact. SPACE could cripple our ability to focus our attention on just one task at a time. As a result, it’s very common to dissociate the word “experience” from these altered and augmented realities, invalidating our frequent interactions with virtual objects and events that are absent from the physical world. However, all of the aforementioned technologies arguably just decrease the difficulty of things we do anyways. Disappearing into a virtual world is not a far stretch from what most of us do already — disappear into a screen. The important thing to consider is not where we are in the world physically, but rather where our consciousness finds itself. For this reason, it doesn’t make sense to accept one thing as a “real” experience and not its virtual equivalent. There is obviously a list of dissimilarities between the two, but they are essentially nonexistent from our perspective. In other words, for all practical purposes, they are the same.
We should accept new ways of experiencing the world, and of experiencing each other. You are no longer defined solely by information that can be found on your person. Your online presence is a ghost of your personality — not quite “here”, but still substantial; not quite “you”, but still distinct from others. Without delving too far into metaphysics, it’s safe to say that we identify ourselves, and each other, primarily by a non-physical image — a personality. Thanks to the advancement of technology, it is now possible to express a personality in new ways. Why restrict ourselves to the past? An instant message might not seem as personal as a phone call, but shouldn’t the content of the message take precedence over the medium used to deliver it? The basic framework of human relationships is primarily based on interactions between agents, and augmented reality simply facilitates interactions that would otherwise be impossible.
If someone takes a walk in the forest and receives visual and auditory evidence that a tree has fallen, it is arguably no more valid than me receiving that evidence from a secondary source, like a video recording of a tree falling. And if someone personally attends a social gathering then posts about it on Facebook, then I’ve essentially been invited too. (Or that’s what I’ll keep telling myself.)
Cover Image: www.iStockphoto.com